Emotional Scars of Sexual Abuse Victims Last Forever, But Not California’s Statute of Limitations. Enact SB-131.


Summary: Scientific study proves that victims of child sexual abuse also suffer physiological effects along with permanent emotional scarring.  Jim Beall did right by proposing Senate Bill 131; it did better by making it to Gov. Brown despite heavy lobbying against the bill by California Republicans and the Catholic Church.  The bill, vetoed by Gov. Brown in October 2013, still has a chance to be passed, but faces obstacles.

The emotional scarring for victims of child sexual assault is not only real, but forever.  A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry (featured in Time Magazine) indicated that the effects are also physical in addition to the emotional effects.  If the physical and emotional effects are long-term (if not forever), why does the state of California have a narrow a statute of limitations for victims to recover damages?

To paraphrase the history of SB-131, it is the genesis of several other bills designed to address child sexual abuse, and to afford plaintiffs adequate time to file suit against their abusers.  Where SB-131 becomes radically different from the rest is how long the window is open for plaintiffs to file suits.  Here are the major characteristics of the bill:

–         SB-131 would suspend the current statute of limitations for one year to allow otherwise qualified plaintiffs to file suit.  

–         It would increase the maximum age to file suit from 26 years old to 43 years old.

SB-131 came before Governor Jerry Brown in September 2013, in which he vetoed the bill the next month, citing fairness to all victims and institutions as his reasoning.  The problem with Gov. Brown’s veto is that it’s unfair to victims who are otherwise qualified to pursue damages, but can’t because of the statute of limitations.  As with any bill, there are cogent arguments for both sides of the bill.

The argument for the bill is that since the California Legislature has a better understanding of the insidious and latent nature of the injuries suffered by a victim of child sexual abuse, approving this bill would be consistent with evolving knowledge of the emotional effects.

The argument against the bill is that it excludes the vast majority of child abuse victims because the bill is tailored toward private organizations, not public institutions.  This is ultimately why Gov. Brown (himself a former Jesuit seminarian) vetoed the bill.

The bill was not perfect, but it was incremental progress toward fairness for the victims of child sexual abuse.  The bill received heavy support from Democratic lawmakers from both the assembly and the senate, as it was authored and coauthored by three Democrats.  Republicans replied in kind by voting against the bill.  One politician on each side stood above the rest in their involvement in this bill; Assemblywoman and coauthor of SB-131 Nancy Skinner (D), and Assemblywoman Diane Harkey (R).  Skinner, herself a victim of child sexual abuse, said that, “We cannot put a timeline on what triggers our ability to deal with an experience we had as a child.”  She didn’t confront her past until her daughter reached Skinner’s age of abuse.  On the flip-side, Assemblywoman Diane Harkey (R), who was never abused in her time through Catholic private schools and church, says “this bill ought to be broad-based. It ought not to be just about reopening wounds and feeding trial lawyers.” 

Harkey also opined that this bill is not about one religion, but the money and facts tend to disagree with her assertion.  Three of the largest opponents to SB-131 are the California Catholic Conference, the California Association of Private School Organizations (Roughly 43% of all private schools are Catholic in California), and California Council of Nonprofit Organizations, which is an umbrella organization for the Catholic Commission.  Of note, they had hired no less than five lobbying firms and spent $258,000 in the first half of 2013 alone. This bill wasn’t enacted to target just the Catholic Church; but if the shoe fits…. 

Technically, SB-131 is still alive, though it’s on life support after Gov. Brown’s veto.  SB-131 was one of many bills that came before California’s lawmakers last year, but this one is perhaps the most significant, especially since child sexual abuse is and has been a hot-button topic since the Penn State scandal with Jerry Sandusky unfolded in 2011 and subsequent high-profile child sexual abuse cases in California.  A couple of things stood out to me while reviewing the voting trends. 

Sexual abuse of any kind is an egregious crime; let alone when done to a child.  This is a statement that a Democrat and a Republican could agree on.  Considering the subject of SB-131, this bill should have been a non-controversial slam dunk to get through to Gov. Brown.  Yet, this issue was not serious enough to California’s politicians to show bipartisan support, noting the significant divide between political parties.  Our plea is this; urge your representatives at the Assembly and Senate to get past their political agendas, and do what’s right for victims of child sexual abuse.

Write CA Legislators and let them know how you feel!    CA Legislators


Senate Bill 131 Analysis

Senate Bill 131 Voting History

Gov. Jerry Brown’s Veto Message

Sexual and Emotional Abuse Scar the Brain in Specific Ways

RAINN – Who are the victims?

California Catholic Commission – Nonprofit Facts

California Association of Private School Organizations

Assembly Oks bill to extend statute of limitations on sex abuse

$250k Spent to Block Sexual Abuse Bill in California

Council for American Private Education – Facts and Studies

California measure to extend statute of limitations for sex abuse victims fails in committee